Forget Innovation If We're Not Actively Listening!
We say we want to innovate, but do we truly have what it takes? Before we can even get out of the Innovation Starting Gate, we must intentionally fine-tune our active listening skills. If we don't pay close attention, we'll miss those idea gems that turn into productivity enhancers and market expanders. Now the bad news is...we've got to work at it, and I mean practice, practice and practice! Without practice, the odds are stacked against us.
Why Do We Fail at Active Listening?
We're human. We listen at 125-150 words per minute, but we think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute. How often do you catch yourself thinking about what your response will be when the other person is speaking? Or checking your smart phone when the other person is mid-sentence? Or becoming distracted because you're thinking about picking up the kids after work or meeting that next looming deadline or ? The reality is that our brains are in hyperdrive as we multi-task between listening to the speaker and juggling the rest of our lives. And the story gets worse. Immediately after we listen, we only recall 50% of what the other party said. As time marches on, we only remember about 25% of what we heard.
What Can We Do About It?
Start with the basics! Active or purposeful listening is hard but rewarding work. It's also a skill that is in high demand. According to the International Listening Association, more than 35 business studies indicate that active listening is the top skill needed for business success. To keep yourself on the active listening track, you can follow these six steps:
- Maintain eye contact with the speaker.
- View the speaker as the single most important person to you in that exact moment of time.
- Take a few notes to keep yourself on task.
- Don't allow yourself to talk except to ask clarifying questions as the speaker pauses. Don't interrupt!
- Watch your body language so you are perceived to be open, receptive to and interested in the speaker's message.
- Encourage and acknowledge the speaker through head nods and short verbal queues ("understand", "tell me more", "OK").
Don't be fooled by the list's simplicity. To become exceptional active listeners, we must practice, practice and practice. How? Start off with a short, time-boxed exercise. Ask a family member, friend or work colleague to speak to a particular topic for 5 minutes. The topic can be on any subject — the speaker's most recent vacation, a day at work, a rewarding experience, etc. Use a timer. When the speaker starts, you, as the listener, must follow the six steps previously outlined. When the 5 minutes is up, discuss the experience with the speaker. Specifically ask yourselves these questions:
- What was the experience like for the speaker?
- What was the experience like for the listener?
When I conduct this exercise in group settings, pairing up speakers and listeners, typically the listeners comment that it's difficult to stay focused for 5 minutes. Yes! That's the whole point of the exercise! Staying focused! The speakers' experience is somewhat different. They usually tell me that they really like that they were heard by the listener. Perfect! In more than a few instances, the listeners have become so in tune with the speakers, that the speakers' 5 minute "stories" have actually emotionally touched the listener. Better yet! Now we're genuinely connecting with others!
How Do We Know if We're Actively Listening?
When our days consist of back-to-back meetings or multi-hour working sessions, we feel mentally drained if we've been actively listening. It takes a lot of energy to pay close attention to what others are saying.
Are There Any Other Active Listening Side Benefits?
Absolutely! Coming full circle, when we actively listen, we'll take notice of the obvious and not-so-obvious ideas that we hear in casual hallway conversations or in the office lunchroom or in group meetings or in 1-on-1's — ideas that can spawn creativity and help us see things in a different light — ideas that move us from "wow, that would be cool if we could do X" or "wow, that would certainly solve problem Y" to innovative solutions that can totally reshape and transform our organizations. And there's more! Being an active listener allows us to view the world through others' lenses. That helps us:
- Connect with others through empathy
- Discover and leverage others' talents
- Explore and push our creative boundaries
- Encourage and promote diverse thinking
- Build strong, enduring relationships
- Diffuse difficult situations
- Increase employee engagement
- Grow and develop into better versions of ourselves
The bottom line is...when we're actively listening, we're actually saying "I hear you, I care about you as a person and I value what you think and what you're saying." No doubt, actively listening opens many doors including the door to innovation.